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The cycle of violence in Indonesian Papua

MapRICHARD CHAUVEL | John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations

MELBOURNE - The killing of construction workers in Nduga, and the Indonesian security force’s subsequent military operations, impact quite differently on the politics of the Papua–Indonesia conflict.

It is contested whether the 16 construction workers were unarmed civilians or members of the security forces but the event on 2 December 2018 marked a departure from the predominantly peaceful, political struggle for independence developed since 2000.

In terms of numbers of those killed, it was the largest attack in recent years.

Over the past two decades, the narrative of human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces in Papua has been one of the most effective strategies of the independence movement, both within Indonesia and in international diplomacy.

The killing of the construction workers weakens this narrative. The military operations since the killings in early December fall into the more familiar pattern of security force operations against the pro-independence groups and the communities in which they live.

The construction team attacked in early December was engaged in President Joko Widodo’s signature infrastructure development project of the Trans Papua Road.

The targeting of this project was not a coincidence. It represented Indonesia’s development program in Papua and the military’s involvement therein.

Lukas Enembe, the recently re-elected Governor of Papua, understood the armed pro-independence groups in Nduga associated the road building project with the military, seeing it as part of the campaign against them.

Following the killing of the construction workers, President Jokowi ordered the military and police to seek out and destroy the armed resistance in the remote and poverty-stricken highland district of Nduga.

The president had previously identified Nduga as the focus and motivation of his commitment to develop Indonesia’s poorest province. He affirmed the killings will not deter him from the commitment to develop Papua.

The killings of the construction workers and the military operations against the armed resistance highlight the cycle of violence that has characterised Indonesia’s administration of Papua.

While there has been a cycle of violence, in military terms, the conflict between the armed pro-independence groups and the Indonesian security forces is highly asymmetrical, with the overwhelming predominance of military capacity being with the Indonesian security forces.

The military are crucial in the maintenance of Indonesian control of Papua, its governance and development strategies.

John Martinkus and Mark Davis reported in The Saturday Paper that the Indonesian military were conducting a major military operation including the use of what appeared to be white phosphorus bombs, chemical weapons banned under international law.

The Indonesian department of foreign affairs has vigorously denied this accusation: “The allegation highlighted by the said media is totally baseless, non-factual, and gravely misleading. Indonesia possesses no chemical weapons.”

An independent military authority consulted for this article considered that the victims’ burns discussed and Illustrated in The Saturday Paper article and in photographs circulated on social media are consistent with the use of white phosphorus bombs.

He also questioned the explanation by the military spokesman in Papua that, because these bombs are used over long distances and cause widespread devastation, the destruction would have been greater than depicted in the photographs.

The same military spokesman confirmed the grenades in the photographs from Nduga were of the type used by the Indonesian military.

Colonel Muhammad Aidi’s statement to the Papua-based media provided insights into the difficulties the military confronted in its operations in Nduga.

It is difficult to distinguish the ‘armed criminals’ – the pro-independence fighters in the military’s terminology – from ordinary members of the community. Few people have identity papers in Nduga. An ‘armed criminal’, he argued, could be dressed up as a local government official, member of the local council or a human rights activist.

The military operations in Nduga have served to unite and mobilise different segments of the Papuan elite – elected politicians, community, human rights and church leaders and the independence activists – against Indonesia.

The on-going operations in Nduga have stirred up the collective traumatic memories of earlier military operations, especially those in 1977 and in 1996, and have galvanised hostility in Papuan society against the military.

It should be noted that President Jokowi’s rival in this year’s election, former General Prabowo Subianto, earnt his reputation for human rights abuse in the 1996 campaign in neighbouring Mapnduma.

Governor Lukas Enembe urged President Jokowi to withdraw Indonesia’s military and police forces from the district of Nduga, so that Papuans could celebrate Christmas in peace. Enembe publicly recognised the demand for Independence was long-standing and needed to be addressed by the Indonesian government.

Lukas Enembe’s call for the security forces to be withdrawn from Nduga has the support of the Provincial Parliament. The governor and parliament also decided to establish an investigation team of the parliament, churches and community leaders.

The governor’s appeal was also supported by a Coalition of 41 civil society organisations, including the major human rights groups, in Papua.

Papuan church leaders go further than the governor and parliament to support the demand made by the pro-independence groups for the government to hold a dialogue to resolve the conflict in Papua. The churches do not support the killing of the construction workers, but they do endorse an international dialogue with the involvement of the UN.

Dr Benny Giay, the head of the Kingmi Church, which has significant congregations in Nduga, respects President Jokowi’s endeavours in Papua, but asserts that these do not address Papua’s basic needs.

“We want the resolution of all the problems in Papua from 1962 to 2018, including the various forms of violence and human rights abuses that have not been resolved until now,” he said.

Few of the pro-independence groups support the killing of the construction workers, but the demand for an international dialogue with the involvement of the UN is an objective that unites the churches and civil society leaders with the independence activists.

While the governor’s call for the withdrawal of the security forces from Nduga was strongly supported by civil society, it was rejected by the military command in Papua. A spokesman for the military command, Colonel Muhammad Aidi, argued that the governor, as the representative of the central government and the Indonesian state, has responsibilities to defend rather than oppose national policy.

The governor had sought to ban the security forces from conducting what the military considered its duty to protect society and defend the unity of the state. Through the military’s prism, the governor was viewed as a spokesman for the Papuan independence struggle.

Enembe was caught awkwardly between the opposing pressures of his constituents, who expected him to protect them against the abuses of security forces, and the provincial military leadership, who asserted that the governor’s principal duty was to defend national policy and the nation state.

As these events continue to unfold it is too early to anticipate whether the killing of the construction workers and the subsequent military operations can act as a circuit breaker for the cycle of violence and the national policy impasse on Papua.

In the middle of Indonesia’s presidential election campaign, it is naïve to imagine that governor Enembe’s appeal to withdraw the security forces from Nduga could lead to the sort of substantial withdrawal of Indonesian security forces from Papua that helped bring about peace in Indonesia’s other intractible regional conflict in Aceh.

Richard Chauvel is an academic in the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne


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Martin Auld

'...PNG government must act immediately to support the Governor of West Papua in his calls for Indonesia to withdraw its military from carrying out more atrocities.'

The atrocity in Nduga was perpetrated by Papuans, not Indonesia. The diplomatic situation is greatly complicated due to the ranking spokesman for the killers residing in Vanimo and the Administrator of Nduga having flown to Australia just before the massacre, where his son is alleged to be a supporter of the killers. Things like this engage the Lombok Treaty and have consequences, seldom made public.

Lucas is Governor of Papua Province. West Papua is the Birdshead Province, which owes it's existence to the pro Indonesian elites there who demanded economic development, are getting it and don't want what the OPM are doing in the highlands to wreck what they've got. Lucas is entirely correct to call for a cooling down period. Sadly, when troops are killed it becomes personal and exacting revenge is often viewed as essential to maintaining troop morale by the senior brass. A lot of people were killed by the OPM and the more traditional Papuans, and not just around Nduga, are worried that payback means the same number of casualties to keep the balance. The author Mr Chauvel entirely misinterprets the Governor's intention in calling for troops to withdraw from Nduga. Nor is it the only thing he misinterprets. Wiranto was thinking of troop morale when he ordered the operation, but you can be sure a more patient, clandestine, intelligence operation involving special forces will be underway.

'The PNG government must be aware of Indonesia’s support for China to stop Australia and the US from jointly building a naval base on Manus Island.'

The new base on Manus is meant to deter Chinese expansion. Indonesia is similarly concerned about China and has already moved to stop Chinese expansion in the Arafura, and is now doing so in Natuna as well. Deterring China with a new base on Manus while calling for Indonesia to reduce it's ability to do so on the other side of the border makes no strategic sense and would very likely be a breach of the Lombok Treaty.

Philip Kai Morre

West Papua is at a sorry stage with enormous human rights abuse and genocide. The UN is not doing anything to stop this madness and is just watching killings go from bad to worse.

Who is the highest authority on earth to assist this problem, because the UN can not do anything? Can the PNG government condemn the genocide and the action of Indonesian military?

Is God helping us or not? I tend to question my faith. I am just frustrated over many things but something needs to be done.

Raymond Sigimet

For West Papua

Yumi olsem wan bilum, wan spia
Em wanpla mama na wanpla papa
God yet givim yumi dispela graun
Long wok antap na long wokabaut raun
Hau tru man kam na burukim haphap?
Nau planti bagarap i kamap stap
Husait tru tokim ol long kam olsem?
Taim God givim yumi na kolim nem
Bulut blong yu barata i kapsait
Aiwara blong yu susa ron long sait
Ol kam man i kam kisim graun blong yu
Ol kam man giaman na daunim yu tru
Ol kam wantaim masin gan na pait lain
Long strongim sait antap long giaman lain

Martin Auld

In Australia, there's an argument for the charge of genocide towards several discreet language groups having taken place, eg the Yaburara in the Pilbara.

In West Papua, the population of the Marind dropped by two thirds between the arrival of Dutch troops around the turn of the century in response to an official request from British Papua to the Dutch government to stop cross border raids.

Dutch sources write that they sent 160 troops, 45 of whom were killed in the ensuing war until the Marind "realised the superiority of Dutch weapons." The number of Marind killed wasn't recorded.

Some 10 years later the Catholic Church in Merauke noted the Marind birth rate had dropped to almost zero with introduced diseases taking a toll, especially a venereal disease spread by fishermen from North Queensland.

This pattern is similar to the process that was unfolding across North Australia, where frontier wars and 'pacification' campaigns were still being prosecuted in the East Kimberley into the 1920's.

Thankfully with help from the Catholic Church, Dutch and Indonesian, the Marind recovered.

This is the sort of research needed into the history of discreet language groups in West Papua.

If you aware of any of the 250+ language groups which existed upon European/Indonesian contact and have since disappeared entirely, your further research could be valuable. Remember, the charge of genocide turns upon proving intent.

This concept has been suggested as an alternative, easier to prove and in my opinion much more suited to analysing the contemporary history of West Papuan demographics -

Daniel Kumbon

Just log into 'West Papua Genocide' and view related graphic videos, pictures and articles on the military operations against the Melanesian people who inhabit the western half of the island of New Guinea.

The images and stories are so intimidating, cruel and chilling you almost want to scream.

Our Melanesian forefathers did not invite foreign powers to come here to divide the large island into portions to claim for their King or Queen.

Ultimate world domination and greed was their motive.

They envied our rich natural resources with lust - like a man who views a young woman bathing in a stream all by herself.

They saw our weakness – isolated communities, poorly armed, illiterate, a people who had been living in isolation for millennia.

The people did not know the value and worth of their rich natural resources -their source of sustenance.

They were a people who could easily be exploited. They destroyed our rich traditions forever.

They continue to exploit us today to cart our timber, gold, copper, silver, oil, gas, fish etc etc every second of the day. The Melanesian people themselves helplessly stand by.

Foreign powers who were responsible to divide the Island of New Guinea - and if they are members of the United Nations, they should be the first people to raise concern at the UN General Assembly.

They should urge the UN to intervene and urge Indonesia to set the West Papuans free, like Australia granted independence to Papua New Guinea.

And the PNG government must act immediately to support the Governor of West Papua in his calls for Indonesia to withdraw its military from carrying out more atrocities.

The PNG government must be aware of Indonesia’s support for China to stop Australia and the US from jointly building a naval base on Manus Island.

Over populated countries can very easily walk over hapless Melanesian states which are nothing but very tiny dots in the Pacific Ocean.

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